Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: American Brutus by Michael Kauffman

One of the criticisms of conspiracy theory is that people are not capable of keeping secrets. The conspiracy of John Wilkes Booth to first kidnap and then later assassinate the president of the United States offers evidence to the contrary. Of the half dozen or so characters that pass through the narrative, nobody gives the plot away. Booth cleverly made sure that all that came in contact with him were linked to him, either through letters, public meetings in restaurants or bars, horses rented from the same stable, or signed hotel ledgers.

Michael Kauffman’s American Brutus is a tour de force in what a real conspiracy is like and how it unfolds. John Booth, the charismatic and successful stage actor runs the show. A pro-slavery southerner, he increasingly views Abraham Lincoln as a tyrant. His first plot is not to kill Lincoln but capture him and hold him for ransom for the freeing of Confederate prisoners of war. These plans fall short with the defeat of the south and his fellow conspirators disapproval of his method of capturing Lincoln, which included lowering him from the balcony to the floor on a rope, while the entire audience watched!

Towards the end, Booth becomes unhinged, gives up his acting career, goes into debt financing his plot, appears moody and depressed, and apparently at the last moment, decides to murder Lincoln.

Author Kauffman reveals many firsts in the assassination of Lincoln, such as:

• Booth apparently didn’t break his ankle during his dramatic leap to the stage after shooting Lincoln. He landed on his right foot but it was his left ankle that was broken. No witness recalls Booth limping off the stage. Kauffman gives evidence that an accident on the get-away horse during the flight may have caused it.
• During the flight, a former Confederate soldier who learned Booth’s identity asked him for an autograph. Booth did one better and wrote a poem (never before published) where he hinted that he had turned down a bribe to kill Lincoln. If so, this clue may indicate the conspiracy had more twists and turns than originally known.

One of the more amazing tales of the book is how the authorities managed to find everybody, from Booth to the host of conspirators, without using modern investigative techniques, forensic science, and slow communication and travel of the time. Despite numerous bungles (such as finding Booth’s escape map and ignoring it), the case was solved in about the same amount of time as modern investigations take.

I highly recommend this book for students of assassinations and conspiracy. It’s a well-written and thoroughly documented account of the Lincoln assassination. It’s a real conspiracy that can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. No files or evidence is still classified after all of this time. Despite all that is known, there are still mysteries that can never be solved in this case—only closer approximations of the events that transpired.